History of Hymns: “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow (There’s a Star in the East)”

by Jan McNair

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow (There’s a Star in the East)
African American spiritual;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2096.

There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn;
Rise up, shepherd and follow;
It will lead to the place where the Christ was born;
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Follow, follow, rise up, shepherd, and follow,
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

The first known publication of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was text only in the body of a short story titled “Christmas-Gifts” by Ruth McEnery Stuart, found in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (Jan-June 1891, 107).1 In the story, slaves were participating in a Christmas celebration hosted by their Louisiana plantation owner family. During an entertaining dance, two of the slaves began to sing the spiritual, “Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow.” The text as printed in the story reads (adjusted to standard spelling from dialect):

There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,
Rise up, shepherd and follow!
It’ll take you to the place where the Savior’s born,
Rise up, shepherd and follow!
If you’ve taken good notice to the angels’ words,
You’ll leave your flocks and leave your herds,
And rise up, shepherd, and follow!
Leave your sheep,
And leave your lamb,
Leave your ewe,
And leave your ram,
And rise up, shepherd, and follow!

The singers invited the others to join in on the refrain:

Follow, follow, follow, follow,
Rise, O sinner, rise and follow,
Follow the Savior of Bethlehem.

Its first appearance in musical form was in a songbook titled Religious Folksongs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations (#173), subtitled “Christmas Plantation Song.”2 This, as with other similar books, was a collection of Negro spirituals heard sung, then transcribed as a manuscript for publication. The Spirituals were passed on orally on the basis of memory. There is a challenge in notating any kind of folk music, as the same tune may have numerous variations based on who is singing it. The songs may be recognizable and fundamentally the same, but there will be unique interpretations.3 Thomas A. Fenner writes in his introduction to Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students that another challenge in transcribing the music was notating the actual pitches and stylistic interpretation. “These tones are variable in pitch, ranging through an entire interval on different occasions, according to the inspiration of the singer.” He continues, “It is of course impossible to explain them in words, and to those who wish to sing them, the best advice is that most useful in learning to pronounce a foreign language: Study all the rules you please; then- go listen to a native.”4 There are no correct or incorrect editions, rather there are endless variations. “Rise Up, Shepherd,” in its first printing, includes a 16-bar refrain, unlike the now common 8-bar refrain. The lowered 7th is a common pitch in Spirituals, and its use continued in the evolution of jazz.

Eileen Guenther notes that, “by far, the largest number of spirituals is in the call-and-response style, in which a leader sings a line or more of text, and a group responds with a refrain.”5 Even though the Hampton edition provides melody only, with no indication of alternating call and response, it was most likely sung in this manner. In The Faith We Sing (and many other songbooks), written instruction is given for the leader to sing a phrase, with the choir or congregation responding, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.”  A refrain for all singers concludes each stanza.

In the Luke 2:8-20 shepherd story, there is no mention of a star. However, the account of the wise men in Matthew 2:1-12 does mention the star in the East. Perhaps the text is a fusion of these two stories.

While most Christmas hymns focus on the adoration of the Christ child, this spiritual (like “Go,Tell it on the Mountain”) is about discipleship. As disciples, what does it mean to “rise up?” Are there beliefs we need to stand up for, or social issues on which we must take action in order to follow Jesus? Are we willing to allow our faith to rise above other matters and concerns that demand our attention? What will we encounter on our personal journey in search of Christ? The shepherds left behind their livelihood, their flocks and herds, all that they had. What is it we are called to leave behind to follow Christ, and what will be required of us in our faith journey?


1 Daw, Carl. Glory to God: a Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Religious Folksongs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations, New Edition. Hampton, VA: The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, July 1, 1909.

3 Lovell, John. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1972.

Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students. Hampton, VA: The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, January 1, 1874.

5 Guenther, Eileen. In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals. St. Louis, MI: MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 2016


About this week’s writer

Jan McNair serves as the Director of Worship and Music Ministries at First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology/Meadows School of the Arts, and the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies.



This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.  For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts


Categories: History of Hymns

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